Canada Women, 2020–
I connected with Phil Neville instantly.
When I first met him, in my interview to become his assistant with England Women, we hit it off straight away.
We bounced off each other. If you didn’t know we’d only just met, you could easily think we’d known each other for years. It was amazing how well we got on.
After I got the job, we made a good team, and one that felt very natural.
We also brought very different things to the management team. Phil had obviously played the game to a very high level; he was in the Manchester United Class of ’92.
He had a wealth of knowledge and had been managed by some brilliant coaches. He also valued high-intensity football. He knew players like that intensity in training. I had come from a more methodical coaching background, so we made a great team.
Phil wanted the team to attack. He wanted the game played like Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. The way we played, we could have won games 5-4.
I found myself being the cautious one. I was always the one asking: “What if?”
The thing is that, naturally, I’m an attacking coach; I like to focus on the in-possession side of things. But as Phil’s assistant, I had to try and provide some balance. I ended up basically being the out-of-possession coach. As a combination, we worked really well together.
I joined Phil in August 2018, and our first big test at a tournament came at the SheBelieves Cup in early 2019. That year’s edition was contested by England, Brazil, USA and Japan. That’s a really, really strong line-up.
"we went into the World Cup fully thinking we could win it"
Before the tournament, we took the players to Qatar, where we focused on team-building and culture. We did lots of activities and got some great work done – playing an inter-squad game only, and no other international sides. That did a lot for team morale leading into the competition.
At the tournament itself, we beat Brazil, drew 2-2 with USA and stormed to a 3-0 win over Japan. Seven points meant we had our first piece of silverware (below).
That victory – even though it wasn’t a major tournament – gave the team and the country the belief that we could go on and make a semi final or final in a bigger competition.
It turned out to be a great start to a great year, because we had the World Cup a few months later.
After the triumph in the SheBelieves Cup, we went into the World Cup fully thinking we could win it. We were aiming high.
We had clear principles we wanted the players to follow. But we also knew that, with the high-calibre players we had, we could give them plenty of freedom, too.
We won all three of our group games. They were all tight, but we beat decent opposition in Scotland, Argentina and Japan. Those wins only strengthened our belief that we could win the tournament.
In the second round, we beat Cameroon in the weirdest match I’ve ever been involved in. They got upset with some refereeing decisions, and it all turned into a bit of a mess. But we won and were through to the quarters, so that was all that mattered to us.
"I’d made it clear from the start with England that I saw myself as a number one eventually"
Then we produced our best display, against Norway. It was the complete performance, against good-quality opposition. We were brilliant, and won 3-0. We scored our first inside three minutes and controlled the game from that point on.
The feeling going into the next game was really positive. We really did believe now. We faced the United States, who we had beaten at the SheBelieves Cup earlier that year, in the World Cup semi final.
As the out-of-possession coach, I did a lot of preparation on defending the back post. When balls came into the box, we knew about the threat they posed with numbers arriving around the back.
Ten minutes in, we conceded a goal from a back-post header (below). I was tearing my hair out on the sideline. All that work, and we couldn’t prevent it.
We equalised, but they scored from another cross and we couldn’t get back into the game.
Looking back, it’s hard not to wonder if the SheBelieves victory worked against us. I don’t think it did, but there is a chance there was the slightest bit of complacency.
I think a bigger issue was that Phil and I changed things for that game, to match what had worked for us against them the last time, rather than sticking with what had worked for us at the tournament up to that point.
I learned how important confidence and momentum are in tournament football from that game. Maybe we were too focused on the opposition? We probably should have stuck with what we were doing so well up to that point, but we wanted to be brave and bold. I suppose we will never know.
"I had a few offers from clubs in England and America, but the Canada job grabbed me"
It was such a tough defeat to take, because we really had believed we could win the whole thing. The players were down and defeated, but there was a bronze-medal match to play. Unfortunately, we lost to Sweden and finished fourth.
I’d made it clear from the start with England that I saw myself as a number one eventually. My longer-term goal was to be a senior head coach.
Phil put loads of trust in me, and I learned so much from him. It was the perfect job for me, because with hindsight I can see I wasn’t ready to be a senior head coach back when I started that role.
It was an intense job, but I’d say I am twice the coach I was for that experience. I learned about the pressure of the job.
In my earlier career, when I’d worked in player development and as a youth-football coach, I’d been expected to improve young players; to produce players for the first team. The pressure on me was little more than that.
With England, it was: if you don’t win the next game, your neck is on the line.
I loved it. I think that’s where you get me at my best. That pressure is what gets me out of bed in the morning.
When it came to light that Phil’s contract wasn’t going to be renewed, I started thinking about what else I could do. A few months earlier, a big head-coach opportunity had come up, but I wanted to stay on with England. At that point the Olympics and the Euros were on the horizon, and we had an exciting two years ahead of us.
"Deep down, I don’t think people really believed Canada could challenge for honours"
With the pandemic and tournament delays, things changed, though. I was ultimately overlooked to replace Phil for the England job, and Sarina Wiegman brought in her own backroom staff.
I had a few offers from clubs in England and America, but the Canada job grabbed me.
I’d worked for the Canadian set-up years earlier. I was head coach for the Under-17s but also oversaw the Under-15s and Under-20s, and the pathway that fed into the first team.
I wrote the curriculum for the youth teams and made sure everyone was aligned in their thinking. My job was to make it as easy as possible for players to step up to the first team.
When I went back into the Canada set-up as first-team manager (above), a lot of the senior players were those I’d coached with the Under-17s. It was a match made in heaven.
Historically, Canada had been up there as one of the world’s best teams, but when I went in in October 2020, results had been poor. Deep down, I don’t think people really believed Canada could challenge for honours. There wasn’t a great deal of expectation.
In February 2021, we played in the SheBelieves Cup. It was a big ask because it was my very first camp and we had six or seven starters missing due to Covid protocols and injuries. We came third out of four teams.
But there were loads of positives. We lost 1-0 to the USA through a late goal; the previous meeting between the two teams had been a one-sided, 3-0 defeat. The players could tell we were heading in the right direction.
"The Olympics is a six-game tournament, and Canada had never won game five"
And we had the Tokyo Olympics to look forward to.
I decided I wanted my team to be the hardest team to beat. Canada’s defensive record had been poor just before I took over. Although I knew we also needed to improve in attack, my focus was on shoring things up at the back.
I had to be pragmatic. We improved some things in possession – beating the opponents' first line when playing out from the back, taking risks and playing forward more – but the focus was on becoming more solid. We needed more clean sheets.
In the lead-up to the Olympics, we kept four clean sheets in a row and scored some good goals against the likes of England and the Netherlands. Things were looking better.
Canada had won bronze at London 2012 and Rio 2016. We set out to change the colour of the medal. I got a few strange looks when I said that to my colleagues, who clearly thought that was a big ask, but I had to set the bar high and push the players.
The Olympics is a six-game tournament, and Canada had never won game five. Winning the semi final had always been one step too far.
So, we did a load of research into what it takes to win game five. We had to make sure we were fresh if we got that far.
But we had a tough group – Great Britain, Japan and Chile – and I think the occasion got to us a bit. We conceded late goals against GB and Japan to draw both of those games, and very nearly threw away a two-goal lead against Chile.
"Genuinely, I just knew we were going to win. After the high of the Brazil win, I had a feeling"
I was disappointed with us letting wins become draws, but we still managed to get through the group. It turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to us.
It meant we had some difficult conversations and addressed some issues that we might have noticed had I had a full four years leading into the Olympics. Instead, I’d had about nine months. Some creases still needed ironing out, and I chose to address them after the game against Team GB.
We faced Brazil in the quarter final. It was a truly awful game; maybe the worst one I’ve been involved in as a coach. We didn’t get going, but managed to grind out a draw.
It went to penalties. Christine Sinclair, the all-time leading goal-scorer in women’s international football, missed the first spot-kick.
I started to wonder if that was her last kick of a ball for Canada – thankfully it wasn’t, and she will be with us at the next World Cup, too. I started thinking about what I’d have to say to the players and the media afterwards. The things a penalty shootout can do to your head are crazy!
But we’d worked hard on lots of detail about penalties – not just taking or saving them, but everything around how the team would act – and came back and won (above). It was a massive result for us, and we were through to the semis.
Next up was game five, and we faced USA – our main rivals and the number-one team in the world. There was also the small matter that Canada hadn’t beaten USA in 20 years.
Genuinely, I just knew we were going to win. After the high of the Brazil win, I had a feeling. I can’t tell you why, I just knew it.
"I broke down in tears. It suddenly felt so much more real"
We put in a decent performance and got another clean sheet. A penalty 15 minutes from time gave us the perfect opportunity to win it, and we did something clever to gain a little advantage.
Christine’s club teammate Adrianna Franch was in goal for the United States. When the penalty was won, Christine picked up the ball. But she clearly had a plan.
At the last second, she handed the ball to Jessie Fleming, and I think that threw the goalkeeper off. Jessie scored from the spot, and we saw out the game. We’d finally won game five.
It was like we’d won the gold. These players had never beaten USA before. They knew how big a deal it was.
I could see immediately that they would need help refocusing. My mind turned to the final straight away. I barely remember the celebrations after that game, because I was so focused on the gold-medal match and bringing the players back down to earth.
We’d already guaranteed that we were going to change the colour of the medal, but nobody was happy settling for silver. We had come this far!
We’d already played GB, Japan, Brazil and the USA: top-10 teams in the world. And now we had Sweden in the final, and they’d had a great tournament. It was a relentless schedule, so I gave the players a day off after our semi final. I told them to switch off, not to talk about football and take in the Olympic Village, which we now got to visit for the first time after Covid restrictions had kept us away.
"What followed was the craziest shootout you’ll ever see"
I broke down in tears. It suddenly felt so much more real. The tournament was played during the pandemic, so there were no fans in the stands. We were totally cut off.
But that video made me realise how big a deal this final was, and hearing such a genuine message from Phil made it clear how far I had come. From the lowest point of my career, when I had no idea what was next for me, to now, and an Olympic final. We had to take this moment.
We went 1-0 down in the first half, but we rallied. I genuinely believe that day off was the reason behind us having the energy we had to get back into the game.
We grew into it, and improved in the later stages after two bold half-time substitutions. We got an equaliser and sent the game to penalties.
That was when my nerves really kicked in. It was do or die. We’d practised penalties and already won one shootout, but this felt like a cruel way to decide such a big moment.
What followed was the craziest shootout you’ll ever see.
We missed three of our first four penalties. It seemed like it wasn’t going to be our day.
But then our keeper, Stephanie Labbie, saved Sweden’s fourth penalty. If it had gone in, they would have won.
"I don't want to be a coach who just wins once. I want to win everything"
From that moment, the mood changed completely. I felt belief surge through the team. We had a glimmer of hope.
Then Sweden legend Caroline Seger missed, and we scored our final two to win it! We’d done it. We’d changed the colour of the medal. We’d won Olympic gold!
There is no other feeling like it. It was all a bit of a blur, to be honest, walking around the pitch, hugging everyone, and people on Facetime to their families.
The weird thing was we didn’t know how to win. We weren’t set up to have a party. We didn’t have the amount of champagne on ice you would like – put it like that!
I learned then that you have to be sure to get those special moments right. We enjoyed ourselves, but maybe we could have done it even better.
After that win, we’ve got the target on our back. It’s only going to be harder to achieve more glory, and the World Cup mountain will be bigger than ever.
But I don’t want to be a coach who just wins once. I want to win everything.
So, hopefully there will be some more medals down the line, and I can make sure I get the special moments just right.
Author: Ali Tweedale